Leading churches

The Five Stages of Church Maturity

How does a church pursue maturity in ministry?

What does a “mature” church look like?

According to Ephesians 4:11-17, a mature church is—among other things—a body of believers in which people are trained by their leaders to minister to others. The people are serving in ministry, not just relying on their leadership to do so.

Such spiritually healthy saints are solid in their beliefs and walk with Jesus, not vulnerable to the latest spiritual fads or ideas. They share the responsibilities of ministry according to their giftedness (1 Peter 4:10-11), contributing to the church body in “which every part does its share” (Ephesians 4:16).

The Reformers, likewise, spoke of the “priesthood of believers”: These are people who see needs, take initiative and create and do ministry, not simply following the lead of their pastor in what, when and how.

In this context, I find that there is a progression of comments that we church people—pastors and congregants alike—make as we grow into ministry maturity.

1. “Great job, pastor!”

This can be a sincere encouragement from newer believers or the intoxicating applause of approving spectators. Often, however, I have found that such satisfied customers can be fickle. Unless we are growing out of this stage, moving from mere affirmation into action, we can be a drain on our church’s ministry and focus.

2. “Pastor, may I help?”

These souls have gone from watching to wanting to lend a hand. This sentiment can come from our fear that the “poor pastor is overworked” or it may be that they think they could be of help.

What if we were to think instead, “Hey, I can just do that”? We all have different gifts, and we’re all called to put them to good use, offering our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-8).

3. “Pastor, I have an idea. May we…?”

Growing even more, we start to hear this question from our church body. These courageous congregants are starting to see church life as something that goes far beyond Sunday morning worship and beyond the sole responsibility of the pastor. No longer mere followers, these are burgeoning leaders.

4. “Pastor, we are going to…”

These brazen souls have earned trust, cleaned toilets, made meals, served and led in all manner of ways. Their relationship with the pastor and with church leadership equips them to see needs and opportunities that God brings before them and then act independently.

Out of respect and to seek support in prayer—as well as to get first dibs on a room at church—they tell the pastor what is going to happen. Yes, they tell him; they do not ask.

5. “Did anyone tell the pastor that we…?”

Finally, reflecting a mature ministry mindset, we overhear this question.

From my vantage point, these people are the pulse of a healthy church. They have met a need, started a ministry, led a charge and did not feel the need to “bother the pastor.” The mutual trust they have developed freed them to “go for it.”

They realize, maybe after the fact, that the pastor might want to know for his own encouragement how God used them, as well as lighten his load, allay some guilt and prevent ministry duplication.

Truth be told, the pastor might not even enter into their thinking. It isn’t about him, and he knows and teaches that (please read Ephesians 4:11-16).

Once a pastor gets over getting “left out” by such saints, he can rejoice. This kind of ignorance is bliss and blessed. Churches blessed with such lean, mean ministry machines are not as strong or weak as their pastor; he does not determine their effectiveness. Such people are the strength of the church.

This final group of people may sound scary: people not running their ideas by the pastor, elders or other church leaders. Admittedly, there are some people who need to be checking in—and frequently. But if people cannot be trusted to follow the Lord in using their God-given gifts, we have either done a poor job equipping them or we are control freaks.

Reject the passivity of our culture’s consumer mindset. Commit. Contribute. Collaborate.

I close with a quandary that has haunted me for years. We applaud missionaries for bringing a church to maturity and working themselves out of a job. When the “locals,” the indigenous people in an area, are finally leading the church, the missionaries have achieved their goal.

Yet many of us seem to think that this missional mindset is not worth applying here in the United States. Why is this? Could this failure to free God’s people to serve partially explain the anemic nature of the body of Christ in America?

Pastors, these questions creatively describe equipped saints, moving along the spectrum of maturity and unity, working together for the gospel (Ephesians 4:11-17). Having modeled healthy ministry for them, prod and applaud them when they pick up their mantle. Remember Hebrews 13:23-25 and the call for purposeful people gathering to serve instead of faithful pew-sitting. Beware the love of the spotlight.

Believers, as you grow in grace, you will find yourself discontent with merely receiving. Let your leaders know you are ready to help, lead and contribute. Start by offering to help in ways you are already naturally serving. Reject the passivity of our culture’s consumer mindset. Commit. Contribute. Collaborate. It will change how you see Christ’s Church, in which you have a vital role to fill.

If you’re a pastor, how are you promoting or hindering people’s movement through these stages? As a church member, which stage do you find yourself in? And how are you moving to the next one?

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